A year from now, and for five years thereafter, Bob Leszczynski will be a pilot for the U.S. Navy. This fall, however, Leszczynski will be piloting the vehicle most dear to Navy men everywhere -- the Naval Academy's football team.
On Nov. 26, in, television's most-watched college game of 1977, Navy dropped a 17-14 decision to Army, the CAdets' first such victory in five years. Quarterback Leszczynski spent a lot of time replaying that game -- "It was kind of hard to put out of my mind; I thought about it for a long time and I wished I'd done this or that differently" -- but it wasn't until his summer cruise, on a frigate out of Pearl Harbor, that the impact hit him.
"I didn't realize what it meant," Leszczynski said. "It was really different this summer. All the officers on the cruise would ask me why we lost to Army. I think we could go 10-0, then lose to Army, and it would be a disastrous season to them."
Navy doesn't figure to go 10-0, and the Army game once again will be a tossup. But there will be a few differences among the blue-and-gold clad Mids this time around. This will be one of the fastest offensive teams in Navy history; it will also be a hard-nosed club, offensively and defensively. And without the specter of a physically dominant Michigan team on the early schedule, it could be very successful.
"I think we could have a good year," said Coach George Welsh, entering his sixth season."There are too many question marks, but we have the potential to be a good team. We have a good quarterback, good receivers and the tight ends look good, maybe the best since I've been here.
"Although the offensive line needs help, our major problems are on defense. We should have good defensive end play, and good linebacker play. We're solid with depth at those positions. But [word illigible]worried about our secondary. Gregg Milo is the only one back there with any experience. And we have just one proven defensive tackle, John Merrill. We'll have to find another one.
"This squad on the basis of spring practice is more physical than any since the '75 team. They're tougher, and they hit harder. Then we don't have to play great teams early. Playing Michigan always affected us later. We don't have an easy schedule -- we start with four road games -- but at least it's one we're capable of handling.
"I try to be realistic. I don't think, with all our question marks, a 10-1 or 11-0 season is realistic. But this team can have a winning season."
Only in 1975, when the Mids finished 7-4, has Welsh enjoyed a winner, and that team was wiped out by graduation, requiring almost complete rebuilding.
Consequently, a winning season is one of two goals established by Welsh and the team. The other is recapture of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, emblematic of service academy supremacy, which resides at West Point after a four-year stay on the Severn.
Welsh, like Leszczynski, spent a lot of sleepless nights reviewing that 17-14 loss in windy, cold John F. Kennedy Stadium. He has put it out of mind now, but only temporarily.
"I replayed a lot of plays in that one for several months," Welsh said. "But I haven't thought about it since spring practice. Army won't affect our preseason preparation; one loss shouldn't change your thinking. But we might take a different approach to the Army game itself. We had been doing the same thing every year.
"I'm not a goal-oriented person, but we want to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy back. And we do want a winning season. One in five years is not enough."
Tailback Steve Callahan, wide receivers Phil McConkey and Sandy Jones, and tight end Curt Gainer, all under 4.7 for 40 yards, make this the swiftest offensive team in Welsh's reign. It remains for Leszcyznski, making greater use of the option play, to take advantage of it.
A year ago, Lesczynski threw 17 interceptions, including his first two attempts of the Army game. It was a turnaround for a guy who threw only four as a sophomore.
"A lot of times I was throwing into a crowd when I shouldn't have," Leszczynski said. "I should have eaten it or thrown it away. It's hard to put a finger on it, but in spring ball I cut them down. I was careful where I threw.
"The whole team was disappointed with last year. Hopefully, we won't make the same mistakes. We came together in spring ball and I think we're going to play very enthusiastic football. The seniors are really psyched up. I think it will spread through everybody.
"We're a young team. If we get things together early, we should have a good year.It's going to be my last year of football for a long time and I want it to be something to remember."
Not something it's impossible to forget, like a loss to Army.